On Saturday, the Legendary Downchild Blues Band, this country’s most enduring act in the genre, will give a concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Five days later, this year’s Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place at the National Music Centre in Calgary. Downchild will not be inducted. Therein lies the rub.
There are 63 acts and artists in the hall, yet none of the blues music kind. So, no Downchild (formed in 1969), and no Powder Blues Band, no Colin James and no Jeff Healey.
“It is an open, blanket discrimination,” says Dan Aykroyd, the actor and blues enthusiast. “It seems the Hall of Fame is eliminating a genre in the same way the Academy Awards does not recognize comedy per se.”
In the 1970s, Aykroyd and John Belushi based their Saturday Night Live Blues Brothers characters on Downchild founder Donnie Walsh and his brother Richard (Hock) Walsh. The Blues Brothers’ platinum-selling album Briefcase Full of Blues from 1978 included a pair of Downchild songs, including (I Got Everything I Need) Almost, which was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.
Former Downchild singer Hock Walsh died in 1999. Guitarist-harmonica player Donnie Walsh is the lone remaining original member of the band. He blames “politics” for Downchild not being in the hall. “Other than that, I can’t see any reason why we’re not in there.”
The Hall of Fame was established in 1978. Inductees are chosen by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, also responsible for the Juno Awards. In response to the hall’s missing Downchild, CARAS issued a statement to The Globe and Mail. It reads in part, “Canada is a country known for our musical excellence. Like any positive, this also creates a unique challenge in that there are many artists deserving of Canadian Music Hall of Fame recognition.”
Obvious deserving candidates would include Diana Krall, Michael Bublé and Celine Dion, all seemingly locks to be enshrined eventually. (Stompin’ Tom Connors’s public boycott of CARAS continues posthumously.) Managers sometimes hold back putting their artists up for hall consideration, whether because of the artist’s schedule and availability, or because the honour might be considered premature if the musician is still in the prime of their career.
In 2019, CARAS expanded the number of annual inductees to five to help clear the backlog of worthy artists. This year’s class is comprised of Oliver Jones, Nickelback, Diane Dufresne, Terri Clark and Trooper.
The CARAS board of directors, who make the final call, include representatives of the major Canadian record labels among its 15 members. Downchild has drifted among a number of small labels over its career, including Attic (now defunct), Stony Plain and its current home, Truth North Records.
The band does itself no favours by changing names, from Downchild Blues Band to Downchild to its current moniker, the Legendary Downchild Blues Band. The brand gets confused, and perhaps the CARAS board does as well. Most of the directors were not yet born when Downchild had its first chart hit, 1973′s Flip, Flop and Fly.
“There’s nobody at CARAS to fight for Downchild,” says Larry LeBlanc, a veteran Canadian music journalist currently with the weekly U.S. entertainment trade publication Celebrity Access. “I bet most of the industry today has never met Donnie Walsh or even seen Downchild play.”
Downchild has won just one Juno Award, in 2014 for the album Can You Hear the Music. “We were so disillusioned by the Junos that the year we did win we didn’t go,” says Downchild bassist Gary Kendall. “It seemed so out of reach that we didn`t even have someone designated to accept for us.”
The blues, though an American invention, can be seen as one of the foundational sounds of Canada. Blues bands were as common as stubby beer bottles in barrooms across the country in the 1970s and 1980s, from Powder Blues Band on the West Coast to Dutch Mason and Matt Minglewood in the East. The Toronto-based Downchild, which has had 86 members pass through its ranks over the years, has toured the country relentlessly.
“It is a commitment to the blues that is unyielding,” says Tragically Hip bassist Gord Sinclair. “Downchild is a quintessential Canadian roadhouse band. I think that’s worth some recognition on that alone.”
Sinclair was exposed to Downchild in the 1970s, when the band received airplay on mainstream commercial radio. Today, blues is niche. Even Aykroyd’s syndicated House of Blues Radio Hour is no longer on the air.
“At the end, I was doing it for nothing,” says the actor, who hosted the long-running show in his Elwood Blues character made famous in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. “I was literally paying the syndicator to keep it on the air.”
In the mid-1970s, when rock radio and even top-40 stations would play Downchild, Sinclair and his future Hip bandmate Rob Baker were teenagers in Kingston. Downchild was playing Dollar Bill’s, a bar and music venue that operated within the city’s Prince George Hotel.
“We were too young to get in,” Sinclair recalls. “But the stage was against the window, so we watched from outside.”
Sinclair and Baker were inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame with the Tragically Hip in 2005. Now it is Downchild on the outside looking in.
The Legendary Downchild Blues Band, with guests Daniel Lanois, Natalie MacMaster and Kenny (Blues Boss) Wayne, plays Toronto’s Massey Hall on Saturday.